Monday, November 23, 2015

Big mergers in input industries?

A series of major mergers is in prospect in the agricultural input industries. Having seen off repeated approaches from US rival Monsanto, Swiss group Syngenta is now seeking to combine its strength in crop chemicals with other groups' leading positions in agricultural seeds. Other leaders in the business including Monsanto, Dupont's seed business Pioneer and the agricultural units of Dow Chemical, BASF and Bayer.

Syngenta chairman Michael Demaré told the Financial Times, 'On the crop chemical side, we are the strong leader. On the seed side, Monsanto and [Dupont's] Pioneer are the key leaders. The winning company in the future will be the one that can combine these two strengths and have an integrated offer.'

Further concentration among the 'big six' would have implications for competitiveness. It would also enhance the global political influence that these companies are able to exert. There is often an under estimation of how influential the input industries are in supporting agriculture politically.

Friday, November 20, 2015

'We are not sleeping on the job!'

That was the assertion of Ladislav Miko, Deputy Director General for the Food Chain in DG Sanco, at a symposium at the European Parliament yesterday on feeding Europe with less pesticides. The event was organised by Greenpeace, the International Biocontrol Manufacturers Association, Pesticides Action Network Europe and other organisations.

He insisted that progress in the approval of low risk substances was dependent on progress in the member states. It was also constrained by the legislation and the capacity available to DG Sanco. This capacity was not increasing.

Miko was optimistic in the sense that he felt some difference in practices was observable in the field. However, a report on the implementation of the Sustainable Use Directive that was due in November 2014 will be submitted to the institutions in the first half of 2016. National Action Plans had been delayed.

I am afraid that this reflects the typical glacial pace in the European institutions, the inadequacy of implementation and enforcement and the usual resort to wheeling out shortcomings by the member states, or more specifically the subsidiarity principle, as an excuse.

One might hope for more progress under the Dutch presidency from January. They intend to propose a 'road map' to the Council which would include the acceleration of approval and authorisation procedures and the finalising of low risk substances criteria.

The Netherlands has been operating its own Green Deal since 2014. However, when I heard the lessons learned listed, they were mostly identical with those that we derived from our RELU biopesticides project which was completed seven years ago. So much for impact. If the Dutch weren't interested in a British project, they could have learnt lessons from their own Genoeg project.

Other dispiriting news was that the 'grey area' of plant strengtheners is to be dealt with in a review of fertilisers, which is inappropriate as these products are often marketed on the basis that they enhance plant protection. Their effect on human health is unknown.

It also became apparent that the European Chemicals Agency and the European Food Safety Agency are treading on each other's toes despite pious expressions about better coordination. Sometimes I think that the EU has too many agencies with too many overlapping jurisdictions, but I don't think this is on David Cameron's reform agenda.

Czech MEP Pavel Poc said that member states needed to respect the commitments made. More needed to be done to tackle the illegal trade in pesticides. As far as low risk substances were concerned, every data gap should not be used as an excuse for non-approval.

IBMA executive director David Cary said that we had not yet built the toolbox we needed. There were far too many approvals for emergency use of synthetics under Article 53. Five low risk substances had now been approved, two of which would be available from January.

Summing up, chair Michael Hamell, a former DG Environment official, said 'A new direction for plant protection is here and it's better to step on the train now. We know where we want to go. Are we sure that everything in our regulatory system is in place?'

My answer is a resounding 'No'. The directives and regulations do the job, the problem is the lack of implementation.

My own presentation on 'The Benefits of Sustainable Agriculture' can be found here: Benefits

Friday, November 06, 2015

Uncertainty about how the world will become worse

One of the speakers summed up an excellent seminar held by EurActiv in London yesterday on 'How Brexit would affect British farming' with the following words: 'Uncertainty about how the world would be worse.'

The discussion was opened by Molly Scott Cato MEP who serves on the European Parliament's Agri Committee. A Green, she represents the south-west and Gibraltar, although, as she pointed out, there isn't much agriculture there.

She said that we tended to take the benefits of the CAP for granted. The countryside would suffer if we didn't have farming working.

A point I very much agreed with is her comment that farming did not have the same resonance in the UK as in other member states as being a vital part of the economy. Farmers would be very vulnerable outside the EU. England could move to a more market oriented view of agriculture, we could move to a New Zealand system with greater intensification and industrialisation.

The view from the NFU

Martin Haworth, deputy director-general of the NFU, indicated five crucial issues:

  • Access to single market, 73 per cent of agricultural exports go there, higher than for the rest of the economy.
  • Would we be more or less open to imports?
  • What kind of EU agricultural policy would we have outside the EU?
  • Labour: farms had 22,000 full-time employees from the EU and the best available estimate of seasonal workers was 21,000.
  • Regulatory issues.

When pressed to give examples of gold plating, Haworth found it difficult to give any, although a representative of the National Sheep Association did point to different treatment of carcasses. The example that Haworth gave of badgers being treated as a protected species is the result of UK legislation reflecting public agitation.

Haworth also said in later discussion that the last CAP reform mixed up economic policy objectives and green policy objectives and ended up pleasing no one.

An environmental perspective

Martin Nesbit of the Institute for European Environmental Policy said that the CAP was not a great advert for European policy-making. What would be a good policy and what would be good for farmers were two different things. The CAP was expensive for what it did and was poorly targeted.

He pointed out that UK vets had been particularly influential on EU discussions and this expertise would be lost.

It was important to consider the link between CAP reform and the wider negotiations. The uncertainty was the most worrying point.

A representative from the WWF commented that Brexit would land both the farming and environment in more trouble. There would be a lower level of funding.

It was argued in discussion that Brexit would change the balance of influence in the remaining European Union. The balance would edge away from the northern liberal states and in favour of the interventionists. One could expect more coupled payments.

EurActiv's own report on the seminar can be found here: Brexit debate